“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Monday, May 31, 2010


... is not a form of nominalism. Discuss.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Shards of Time

The salt of the Earth

Adrian Ivakhiv and Christopher Vitale have been posting about temporal “crystals” (a Deleuzian term), somewhat in response to some posts here on the Cocteau Twins. These crystals appear in art that uses time as one of its raw materials (such as cinema). They are crystalline because they suspend time present over time past (and sometimes time future), creating an illusion of stasis in a temporal flux.

One reason for the soundtrack-ing of contemporary political ads is precisely the “crystallization” of feelings in a periodic structure (that's what a crystal is). Verse–chorus forms are ideal. Perhaps even more ideal would be shoegazer style verse–verse or chorus–chorus forms, because of the temporal disorientation that a more simple periodicity would evoke. What do I mean?

These temporal crystals are akin to development sections in classical sonata form or to what Aristotle calls the “middle” of a story (at least, a classically realist one). If you turn on the radio and hear a burst of story coming out, can you tell whether you're in the middle or not?

Aristotle says narratives have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. This used to seem stupidly obvious to me, until I realized that he was talking about a feeling of beginning (aperture), a feeling of middle (development) and a feeling of ending (closure). Not the mathematical middle of a sequence of pages or the first and last pages of a book.

What's the feeling of being in the middle? For the most part it's a feeling of cycling. Events keep turning around on themselves, playing out their implications. (Think of the development section of a sonata in which all the musical subjects get inverted, played backwards and so on.)

The feeling of being in the middle has to do with the periodic organization of temporal rhythms. Now in a story you have two faders to play with: frequency (number of events) and duration (length of events). And you have two channels: plot (the chronological sequence of events) and story (the narrated sequence of events).

For our purposes here, “event” = anything with a verb. (Strictly limiting myself to structuralist narratology for simplicity's sake.)

In the middle of a story, the ratio between frequency in the plot and in the story is inverted, on the order of 1/n or n/1. Likewise duration. In other words, an event that only happens once in the plot may be narrated many times (and vice versa). An event that only takes a few seconds in the plot takes many chapters in the story (and vice versa). This sense of discrepancy organizes our feeling of narrative rhythm as developing, that is, oscillating, running on the spot—a temporal crystal. It's a feeling of distortion.

Most classic realism pops this distortion bubble at a certain point. It's easy to do. All you have to do is narrate an event with a frequency and duration ratio of 1/1. Think of the Bourne trilogy. It's all closure all the time in those movies. Closure is precisely the feeling of ending induced by the illusion of isometric ratios between plot and story.

The effect is analogous to suspension in music (chords shifting over a drone or a high pedal point, or shifting over one another in a staggered way). Disco uses suspension precisely to keep you on the dance floor. The form of electronic dance music tends towards total periodicity, resulting in some beautifully static yet fluid structures.

Thus the mid-section of Solaris (not the mathematical middle but the Aristotelian one as defined) is the zero-gravity episode where everyone floats (literally and figuratively) to a Bach cantata, in front of a Bruegel painting. Of course, the whole movie is heavy on this kind of suspension.

And, without doubt, Wordsworth's “spots of time” are crystalline in this sense.

And, without doubt again, highly appropriate for an age in which we are becoming aware of the ongoing, developing hyperobject called global warming—or that ooze in the Gulf. Or that plutonium...

A crystal lattice is a place where electrical forces are balanced. Everything cancels out, so that for an electron at the lowest bandwidth of energy, the lattice is effectively transparent.

Close to the ground state (absolute zero), particles of matter go into quantum coherence (they become the “same” particle). Matter in this state thus becomes radically transparent and other particles (say an electron beam) can pass through it as if nothing were there. The idea of separate particles no longer means anything at this point. It's a kind of hypercrystalline state (in a metaphorical sense), total transparency without solidity or locality. I imagine a more or less similar effect could be achieved in narrative. In such a state, no singular events would stand out from the transparent ocean of time. In this sense, perhaps not metaphorically, what is called a “particle” would be a kind of closure, like an irregularity that stood out from the transparent ocean.

Steve Alexander, “Not Invented Here”:

Rollercone, “Fictions”:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

More Trees

The data from the inverter attached to the solar panels on the roof tells me that they have now offset 10 809lbs (4 903kg) of carbon, the equivalent of 5.2 mature trees.

They also add a certain sapphire-like quality to the mauve house...

It's not the sublime, it's the bacteria

ScienceDaily (2010-05-25) — “Exposure to specific bacteria in the environment, already believed to have antidepressant qualities, could increase learning behavior, according to new research.”

Strolling around outside exposes you to the bacteria. “For most of our history we were hunter gatherers rooting around in the soil ... My advice to people who want to see if they could have this effect [from the bacteria] is to turn your TV off, shut the computer down, go for a walk in the woods, put a garden in ... ” (Dorothy Matthews, who did the research).

More good news for symbiosis fans and for fans of how our (human) being is massively distributed. And, of course, for ecology without nature.

The beastie they're talking about is
Mycobacterium vaccae, first discovered in the 1970s in cow udders, and readily available on the other side of your front door in the soil.

Here's the interview with researcher Dorothy Matthews.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lawn Care

Okay. To take your mind off the misery have a listen.

Rubyliquid, “Moulder.” Music and lyrics by Tim Morton and Mike Snyder. Documents my obsession with lawns...horizontal Barnett Newman paintings...symbols of private property, individualism (not uniqueness)...obsessive crewcut masculinity...green blank pages dotted with flowers (of rhetoric)...
They water golf courses with kerosene
They never play because they thinks it's obscene
The grass is burning can you not hear the scream
I'm integrated into the machine

You blew your mind when you was just seventeen
They know about lovin if you know what I mean
Lovin Jesus and a small Dairy Queen
I'm integrated into the machine

I'm just a lawnmower, me

You gotta run cos you're a human bean
We'll never catch up to the fantasy dream
The lawn is flickerin like an old movie screen
The truth is out there if you stay on the scene

I'm just a lawnmower, me
I'm integrated into the machine

Run through the grass—open at last
Going too fast—going first class
When you're silver and vast

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Beautiful Texan Souls

To commemorate the passing of the Texas Board of Education's new dogma, inflicted on any US schoolkid with a textbook, read Thomas Merton, “The Moral Theology of the Devil."

It convincingly argues that fundamentalism is a form of Satanism.

The Moral Theology of the Devil

Ideas come bundled with attitudes. The beautiful soul (described by Hegel) is the attitude bundled with the idea "The world is choked with evil."

(Seeing evil as an irreducible substance) IS (evil).

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Sound of Elsewhere

This is what the eighteenth century sounded like. It was a thing to have one of these in your house, in the window. Kind of like an iPod with speakers now. Coleridge and Shelley incorporated Aeolian harps into immanent materialist ontologies, in beautiful and disturbing ways. See this essay (DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00520.x).

The sound of an Aeolian harp is unearthly yet caused by very ordinary phenomena—they're like wind chimes really, only with sympathetic strings instead of smooth metal.

And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dripping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untam'd wing!
O! the one Life within us and abroad... (Coleridge, “The Eolian Harp”)

In Ecology without Nature I talk about the Aeolian as an effect of ambient poetics—the illusion that sound, imagery etc. is emanating from an unseen source, like wind in sympathetic strings.

Quanta versus Machines

Image courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

Image courtesy of Emok (Wikimedia Commons)

This essay discusses Casimir effects, quantum phenomena that gum up minuscule machine parts. Since we now have very tiny machines, you can expect to see this happening. My iPhone died mysteriously two weeks ago. I took it to the store and the people there couldn't figure out what had happened. I wonder whether its micromirrors (as mentioned in the Science Daily piece) got gummed up this way. The effect occurs when two components are very close to one another—even in a vacuum.

What interests me mostly is that this is another deconstructive nail in the coffin of believing in a hard, thin ontological firewall between “macro” and “micro” scale events. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation and subsequent conventional wisdom, quantum phenomena are limited to a microcosmic domain. Hmm, where have I heard this suspicious binary before...back in the Middle Ages, maybe, when I was being burnt at the stake?...

I've been posting recently about how quantum phenomena are now visible to the naked eye and about how photosynthesis employs quantum entanglement. Photosynthesizing molecules are definitively macro, in case you're wondering. And about how we still cling to Newtonian physics even though it's only a good-enough working approximation—we still believe somewhere deep down in little shiny ping pong balls.

I've also been reading about how there is (as deconstruction would predict) a non-thin, non-rigid boundary between quantum and classical scale phenomena. All kinds of anomalous things occur at this shifting boundary. Casimir effects would appear to be one kind of complication for people wanting smooth, rigid worlds.

It's also another blow to mechanism in general. (It's a misnomer, really, “quantum mechanics”—should be called “quantum non-mechanics.”) Niels Bohr used to take his colleagues up to a certain clock tower in Copenhagen to show them the large cog wheels (it was Vor Frelsers Kirke), and then explain that the Universe just wasn't like that at a deep level. The Casimir effects presumably work by making two separate components cohere with one another—share particles or splash into one another (whichever takes your fancy).

What does this have to do with ecology? Everything! For a start, last time I checked, life forms were made of matter. And matter does this weird wavy stuff. The quantum view is also profoundly ecological—even more so than biology in the sense that an actual electron, say, only exists as such because of its surrounding environment. Tweak the wave functions and it's something else.

This happens all the time. Think about radiation. It penetrates your skin—because matter can be wavelike. You can easily imagine one wave sloshing through another one. Now of course if there really are little ping pong balls down there, we live in a nihilistic realm of miracles where things can travel faster than light, etc.

Two great flavors: Classic and Quantum

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Romantic ecology

I was thinking about some questions that I was reading on a discussion list, concerning Romanticism and ecology—viz. what actual contributions Romantic poetry might make. I think for this (in nuce) I would turn to the final sentences of Ecology without Nature: “Ecology may be without nature. But it is not without us.”

In a sense this is like Hegel's argument about Romantic art. In Romantic art, the idea transcends sensual forms. This is part of how “spirit” comes to know itself as such, which in actuality is incarnated in the fragility of actual people (as opposed to gods or nature). Thus Romantic art talks about its inadequacy, uses the sublime, and so on.

Since I'm arguing that ecological consciousness is consciousness as such (consciousness is necessarily ecological), my argument in a sense follows Hegel. Think about his statement regarding Romantic subjectivity: “the simple unity with self which has destroyed all mutually exclusive objects.” In an ecological view, precisely, nothing is mutually exclusive.

This Romantic ecology is very different from the irony-free “big mountains” type in current circulation. This form has to do with upgrading your consciousness.

In a funny way then, Romanticism shares with animism a concept that the most actual things are people, without a concept of nature. Since one thing that modern society has damaged has been thinking, working out what ecological thinking might be is a good ecological task. This has direct consequences in the actual world, e.g. how to deal with oil slicks, plutonium and so on is profoundly influenced by our metaphysics and ontology, or the lack thereof.

Like good intellectuals we will probably be tempted to jump all over this, tearing our hair and going "That's all very intellectual. But what are we supposed to DO?!"

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Sweet Edge of Dream

...pop, mined for its sparkling relics by the Cocteau Twins and Lush and to some extent Slowdive et al. Perfect kitsch objects that burst open with too much bliss, revealing threatening realms of ego-melting hyperobjectivity.

One of the concepts in Ecology without Nature is the timbral. This is the way in which poetry, music, painting (whatever) exploits timbre—the material medium that transmits the soundwaves (or whatever). As Heidegger says you never hear the wind as such, you hear the wind in the trees, the wind in the doorway. When you hear a violin note you hear wood, cat gut, horsehair, a certain tension, “tone”—not just an abstract note (say C sharp) but a zone of material intensity, like an ecotone or muscle tone. An essay I wrote on Coleridge's poem “The Eolian Harp” talks about this. With its talk of the “soft witchery of sound” emanating from strings vibrating in the breeze blowing through an open window (wind harps were a common household gadget in those days, like iPods now), perhaps “The Eolian Harp” is the first example of dream pop.

Timbre, timber, hyle, matter. (The juicy bit starts on p. 39.)

Liz Fraser's voice and Guthrie's chorusing, distorted guitar open up this realm of materiality, the timbral. A disturbing realm that Kristeva called the semiotic (p. 19ff.). Language overwhelmed by things.


Here's another song from the same period—the moment at which singer Liz Fraser was cutting up phrases from magazines and pasting them together and then singing them. Knowing this doesn't prepare you for the remorseless beauty of “Orange Appled.” And this is a live version. For those of you in the know, dig the little grace note Liz puts in there in the second lyrical phrase...

Oozing Grief Part 2

Well, I'm not sure if this is a good soundtrack to oil either. More like a reminder that there is always more than one way out. I was talking with a good old friend about our love of the terrifying gentleness and hair raising sparklecore that is the hyperobject known as the Cocteau Twins and realized that I hadn't yet shared any on this blog. No time like the eternal present. 1986, what a fine year for music.

What can I say about this without quickly venturing towards an unspeakable realm? If you are wondering what dark ecology sounds like, hit play...

PS: Can I have Guthrie's sparkly guitar please? Maybe in blue or magenta?
PPS: If I die in your company you now know what to play at the funeral.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Oozing Grief

Two Exxon Valdezes a week gushing from the hyperobject in the Gulf, according to astrophysics professor Eugene Chiang (UC Berkeley).

(Should have been soundless, or just undersea noise—right?)
PS: Theoretical astrophysics to the rescue—again!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Wlad Godzich asked me what constituted an event in my implicative view (see below and here), and it took me a while to reply, but as it's quite relevant to the talk on textuality here goes:

1) A Whiteheadian “actual occasion,” a concatenation of an ongoing process.

2) In a different mode, Derrida's notion of l'avenir, an irreducibly unpredictable future.

I recognize that there is more than asymmetry between these answers.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Ecology and Elegy

My essay “The Dark Ecology of Elegy” just came out in Karen Weisman's beautiful new Oxford Handbook of the Elegy. Amazing cover, and a treasure trove inside.

Talk at UCSC

I'm giving a talk at UCSC this Friday called “Implications of Textuality,” at a conference called How Poems Work. The talk comes out of my interest in materialist poetics. There are some ecological ramifications too.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Queer Ecology Here

“Queer Ecology” just appeared in PMLA.

Monday, May 3, 2010

An Answer to the Replies to the Answer of the Real: Introducing the Smoked Glass Box

Because there have been three very intelligent comments on the post below (thank you!), I thought I'd talk some more about the volcanic cloud emitted from Iceland as an augury—some kind of message, even if we're unsure of the content.

The logic of the comments (the authors are in sync with one another I feel) has been very well taken. On reflection, I think it's best to agree, at least with the part I'm about to explain. I may have been inhibited from seeing how I agree for the rather trivial reason that I assumed that nothing good could come from the stables of Rupert Murdoch (the original piece was in the London Times online).

It seems that what Robin Mackay and Feed Me I'm Cranky are both saying is that it would be better to act as if the volcanic cloud were a message, even if we were unsure of the sender or of its content. In this sense, there does indeed appear to be a gap in (contemporary attitudes towards the scope of) reason.

This gap is part of how the nonhuman is habitually constituted as totally opaque, a-signifying—and on reflection, Zizek volunteers frequently as a spokesman for this gap. Indeed, the Lacanian Real is an opaque, meaningless distortion that can't be symbolized. Anyone who thinks the Real directly means something is written off as a psycho.

As we shall see, the taboo on ontological interpretations of the Real contains an implicit ontology.

The taboo looks suspiciously like the injunction not to account for the equations of quantum theory by positing something real that they are about—the Copenhagen Interpretation, to which Zizek appears to subscribe (see here for a discussion): “quantum physics, where we are dealing with the rules/laws which function, although they cannot ever be retranslated into our experience of representable reality” (“Inside the Matrix”).

Luckily this taboo is being broken, both in quantum theory and in contemporary materialist philosophy. Luckily for our purposes, because the taboo only reinforces by default a certain state of affairs—mind–body dualism and nihilistically shaded empiricism—that may be at least in part responsible for the ecological mess we're trying to understand and transcend.

The commandment, Thou Shalt Not Wander Too Far Off the Reservation of Little Ping Pong Balls I Saw in the Chemistry Lab at High School Moving Mechanically in a Rigid Box of Absolute Space-Time, affects even the contemporary Heideggerian view of objects as black boxes. The Real remains the stone against which Doctor Johnson's boot smacks firmly, his own “answer of the Real” to Berkeley's idealism (“Thus I refute him sir!”).

The commandment has the disadvantage of having been based on a view that has been shown to be merely a good-enough approximation, relying on assumptions derived from false immediacy. The two major schools of physics for the last 100 years, relativity and quantum theory, both make it impossible to think matter this way—the Newton way.

Of course, we can build spacecraft based on Newtonian approximations, just like we can refer to “sunrise” based on “common sense” (dreaded new term of the Palinistas) and a bit of Ptolemy. The trouble is, philosophers and other humanists (I used a bad word!) and even quantum theorists go around talking about particles moving in empty space—and not just when those theorists are ordering a pint in their local pub. A gap in reason indeed.

Instead of simply accepting this commandment, turning thinking off and settling down into Newton's sleep, we should to develop at least one more category of significant matter. We could call this category the Smoked Glass Box: it's kind of black-ish, but we can see inside it (and through it).

Now for the sake of argument, forget figuring out who or what the sender is, or what the message is saying. I think this was one of my stumbling blocks. As soon as I dropped my teleological urge to see where the message was coming from and where it was going to, things got easier.

The other prejudice I needed to drop was that if no definite sender or message can be specified, it's not a message. But as we shall see, this lack of specification happens all the time—it may even be an intrinsic feature of language as such. Read on...

Perhaps the black-box syndrome described above is the real problem with Latour's argument, come to think of it. It's not so much the nonhuman phenomena, but the idea of scientific instruments as (more or less accurate) mouthpieces for these phenomena—how can we tell what they are when all we have are tracks in a cloud chamber?

Latour's picture of black boxes and information-relaying machines is a nice image but it's pretending to be a lot more. What if the point were precisely that there was indeed some kind of communication—but rather like Woodstock's speech, we can't tell exactly what it says. AND that this doesn't matter in quite the way Latour seems to think it matters.

Remember how Woodstock's words look like little blades of grass—indeed, the proverbial sticks or tea leaves of augury. We can only tell the little scratches are speech because they're in a speech bubble.

Working backwards from this point, isn't it the case that human–human communication is already this augury + projection/inference? We detect clouds of sound coming from a cloud of flesh in our vicinity and, before we ascribe meanings, we assume there is a meaning.

So in a sense Latour has it wrong, not because he's not precise enough about what counts as a nonhuman entity, but because he ignores the crucial contingent, “superficial”—material—quality of language-ness as such, which is always this physical-yet-significant cloud.

Language as such is already the proximity to humans of nonhuman material processes (fluctuations of air, sound waves, squiggling ink and stone). It's completely arbitrary to exclude the volcanic cloud from such processes.

Thus we can rigorously account for the gap in reason as specified in Mackay's reading of the opinion piece, and for the danger of hermetically sealing human meaning from nonhuman reality as specified by Feed Me I'm Cranky.

Related issue: Just as we don't care very much that we can't draw a rigid boundary between say French and English (without getting involved in paradoxes), we shouldn't be too worried about where to draw a boundary between weather and global warming phenomena. This reduces one of my anxieties about the Smoked Glass Box approach to the cloud (see the previous post).

Thank you again to my commenters who brought me to this place of headslapping clarity.

Have at it my friends!

Water, water, everywhere ... Nor any drop to drink

My mind is still pretty gapped by the magnitude and intensity of the BP catastrophe (“Beyond Petroleum” indeed) so I think I will simply point you in the direction of this slide show for now.

Rorotoko Interview

I just did this interview.